Monday, 28 May 2012
Spinach, strawberries, and the Society of Authors Children's Literacy Campaign
"Reading for pleasure" is a phrase we hear a lot. It's become a bit of a cliché and the real problem with clichés is that we stop thinking about their meaning. They lose their power.
The other problem with the phrase is that "pleasure" often implies less importance or worth. It implies that perhaps we shouldn't do too much of it, that we should make sure we've done the "work" parts of our reading before we deserve the "pleasure" parts. Reading for pleasure seems somehow more frivolous, epicurean, than reading for benefit, information, work.
It is not; and we fall into some dangerous traps if we think so. Reading for pleasure should come first. It is essential to reading at all. Let me explain.
Once, each of us had to learn to read. We were very young when we had to learn this activity which is difficult, unnatural, and for which we are not, in fact, evolutionarily programmed. There is no part of the brain which is "for" reading, though there are parts which are involved in the separate skills which reading requires. (See Maryanne Woolf's fascinating Proust and the Squid for details about the evolutionary aspects of reading in our brains.)
You cannot get small children to do something just because it's good for them. It has to be pleasurable. We need many hours practice to learn something so complex, and we simply will not get children to put in the hours if they don't enjoy it. Many children enjoy reading immediately because they find it easy immediately. Those children will sail through learning to read because they don't even notice they are learning: they are having too much pleasure. (Including the pleasure they derive from the act of succeeding itself.)
Other children, with differently wired brains - and remember that since our brains are not wired for reading we all have to "borrow" brain cells and connections from certain brain parts in order to find ways to reading success - will find it harder. They will experience early failure. Show me an adult, let alone a child, who finds pleasure in failure.
For these children, being told they must read this text because it's good for them, because it's part of schoolwork, because they need to skills to succeed in life, will go no way towards them ever enjoying, and therefore ever adequately practising, the act of reading. They are being offered medicine, instead of food. Hard work instead of enjoyment.
By the time these children are around eight years old, they have seen their friends learn to read easily and wondered why they can't. They have discovered that they "can't", or at least can't easily or well. They now enjoy it even less and probably not at all. They switch off, find other ways to shine, and sometimes the way to shine is to become the naughty child, the disruptive one, the one that the other children love to watch getting into trouble. Or they hide. They retreat into a shell inside which every effort goes into avoiding reading.
Initiatives by schools and governments to get them reading will have absolutely no positive effect if the focus isn't reading for pleasure. You can thrust the exercises and worksheets at them, you can drag them to a reading session for ten minutes every lunchtime, you can even fill the library with books and make them sit in it, but if reading for pleasure is not the whole focus - the WHOLE focus - you might as well chuck the money and the effort and the books into the sea. Because they will not practise for the required number of hours. It's that simple.
This is why I talk about spinach and strawberries. Both are good for us. When we eat spinach, even if we also like it (as I do), we still eat it with a sense of "This is good for me. Its health benefits are more obvious than the pleasure of its taste." When we eat strawberries (or any other fruit you happen to love better), we don't do so thinking about the health benefits, merely about the fact that we enjoy the taste.
That's what reading should be like. Reading is fantastically "good" for us but we shouldn't be thinking about that when we do it. And, most crucially, we should NOT, please, please, please, offer reading to children as some kind of medicinal or healthy activity, even if, like spinach, it is. We should offer it purely as enjoyable. And our whole aim should be to find a book that a child will enjoy reading.
Because otherwise, why would he do it?
That's why I support, with all my heart and with the loudest voice I have, the children's literacy campaign by the Society of Authors.
That's why I recently agreed, proudly, to be one of the new Ambassadors for Dyslexia Scotland, at the invitation of Sir Jackie Stewart, who knows all too well what it is like to go through school feeling a failure because of failure to learn one thing: how print works.
That is why I write for young people.
And that is why I'm proud to write not books but strawberries. Because I know strawberries are good for you but I only want you to think of the taste.
I will be talking more about this in Glasgow on June 16th, where I'm doing the keynote speech for a conference aimed at parents who want to know more about reading and how to encourage it. Do come!